Monday, November 7, 2011

Millwater's Farriery: On the Barefoot Movement...

...versus the "Traditional Farrier Trim"

   Not all horses need horseshoes all the time.  In fact, some horses can do everything their masters require of them perfectly well barefoot, and may never need shoes at all.

   The economic reality of today is that there is a shortage of truly competent farriers, especially when it comes to those available to 'small time' horseowners.

   These to factors create a niche for the hoof trimming specialist.  Competent trimmers to handle some of the horses who don't need iron, freeing-up the farriers to focus primarily on those that do. And saving the horseowners from having to rely on Cheap John horseshoers for trim work.

   So, just to be clear: I don't have a problem with some horses going barefoot, or with competent trim-only services.  (a.k.a. Barefoot Trimmers.)

   A bit over a decade ago, there was a wave of anti-horseshoeing zealotry inspired by the much-vaunted Strasser barefoot trimming approach.  To their credit, barefoot enthusiasts appear to have become somewhat less militant, and to have moved away from Strasser in favor of much more sensible trimming models in recent years.

   But there's still an anti-horseshoeing vibe out there.  In equestrian forums, people feel the need to be apologetic about having their horses shod.  Starting posts with "I'd really prefer to have my horses barefoot, but..."   And heaven forbid anyone suggest shoes as a solution to any hoofcare problem, as someone will usually feel obligated to jump-in and claim it's crazy to expect shoes to fix problems they insist were created by using shoes in the first place...  Or to push their favorite barefoot guru's protocol and/or shoeing alternative, despite it being an iffy and cumbersome way to do what appropriate shoeing could accomplish immediately.

   One thing that really rubs me the wrong way is the implied claim that Barefoot Trimmers have some sort special approach that is dramatically better for shoeless horses than the "traditional farrier trim"...

   The supposition being that farriers trim all horses as if we were going to fit them with shoes...  Flat, and with relatively low depth of foot.

   I spent my formative years in the coastal lowcountry, where a large percentage of horses go barefoot.  The humidity and moisture tended to keep hooves a little soft, and the ground was sand, black sod, clay, and limestone.  Abrasive, rather than rocky. 

   Early-on, I noticed that the barefoot horses with the best feet coming in for trimming didn't have flat bearing surfaces.  This was especially noticeable when someone had worked the horse enough to need shoes due to excessive wear.  Even after trying to flatten the foot to receive the shoe, I'd still wind-up with some daylight between shoe and hoof through the quarters, and a bit alligator-mouthed at the toe. 

   The non-flat, worn surfaces of bare hooves weren't too mystifying.  One problem a lot of rookie horseshoers have is accidentally "gutting the quarters" when they're trying to rasp the foot flat.  The structure of the hoof makes it easy to grind-away the quarters...

  It's also obvious to even a greenhorn that horseshoes typically wear thin at the toe first...  So the fact that worn, bare hooves had gutted quarters and beveled-up toes made perfect sense.

   It also didn't take long to observe that the non-flat bottomed hooves generally looked pretty good, even when due for a trim, while hooves trimmed neat and flat quickly split and peeled.  It's not great for business to have hooves look way worse a week after trimming than they did a week before you did them.

   So, when trimming horses to be left barefoot, I developed the approach of doing the main trim with three nipper passes, each done with the reins swung slightly to the outside, making the cuts at a bit of an angle.  One pass, heel-to-toe bend on one side of the hoof.  Another on the opposite side, then the third across the toe.  After rounding everything up with the rasp, this left the horse standing on four spots of the wall on each hoof.  One on each side of the toe, and one at each heel buttress.

   In mechanical terms, this trim reduces breakover resistance both when going forward and moving laterally (which is why I got less chipping and peeling), while maintaining good overall depth of foot thanks to the four loading spots holding the sole up off harder ground, so the horses weren't sore-footed.

    Fast-forward to the early 1990s, when I met Ric Redden and Gene Ovnicek, and attended symposiums featuring their Four Point and Natural Balance trimming approaches.  Gene, like Jaime Jackson, had taken an interest in mustangs, and had used his observations to guide his trimming technique.  The Four Point and Natural Balance protocols corroborated what I'd been seeing and doing all along...  And expanded my understanding of why it worked.

   Around that time, I was interacting with some of the elder statesmen of farriery. (Somehow, I had a lot more elders back then.  Funny how that works.)  Several of them told me the same thing.  They'd been doing bevel-based, three-pass, Four Point, Natural Balance trims for barefoot horses for decades.  It never occurred to them that it was really a 'thing'.  It's just the way that worked for them.

   Checking the leading farrier school textbook from over a quarter century ago, I find that extensive beveling, starting with using the nippers at an angle, is instructed under "trimming to go barefoot".  Even my 1898 textbook emphasizes the need to preserve extra horn and aggressively round-off the walls on horses who will be going without shoes.

   So, if the "traditional farrier trim" is flat and short, same as if the horse was going to be shod, it must be a pretty darned new tradition!

   I know that there are some horseshoers out there who do every foot the same way, whether shoes are going-on or not.  A decent Barefoot Trimmer would certainly be better for the horse than going with such a shoer.

   But the notion that Barefoot Trimmers have had some sort of divine revelation that showed them how to trim horses better than competent farriers is just an insult to generations of professionals.

   You see, when Barefoot Enthusiasts tell veteran farriers to go read-up on the teaching from the latest guru, we roll our eyes not because these approaches are wrong, but because you're trying to teach grandma how to suck eggs!

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